U.S. Woman's Retrial Opens in Peru

Associated Press -- 20 March 2001

by Rick Vecchio

LIMA, Peru - The retrial of New York native Lori Berenson opened Tuesday - this time in a civilian court - after a five-year campaign against her conviction on terrorism charges by a secret military tribunal.

With her parents in the front row, Berenson sat behind bars in a concrete cell facing a panel of three judges, listening intently as officials read the charges. She is accused of ``terrorist collaboration'' for allegedly helping leftist rebels plot to seize Peru's Congress.

Five years ago, hooded military judges convicted Berenson, a leftist activist, for treason in a secret trial that denied her any semblance of a defense. She was sentenced to life.

The government hopes the public retrial - agreed to after pressure from the United States - will demonstrate judicial fairness after the fall of ex-President Alberto Fujimori, whose administration exercised tight control over the courts.

The prosecution is seeking a 20-year sentence.

Berenson, wearing a white blouse and long dark skirt, showed no emotion as prosecutors outlined their case in the San Juan de Lurigancho men's prison on the outskirts of the capital Lima.

The charges alleged that Berenson, 31, arrived in Peru in late 1994 as part of an international radical network to aid the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. She was accused of renting a house used by the rebels as a hide-out and secret training center and posing as a journalist with the wife of a top guerrilla leader to enter Congress and plan a takeover.

After listening to the charges, Berenson - who denies knowing her housemates were rebels - huddled with her lawyer. She then made a statement challenging a piece of prosecution evidence: a forged Peruvian election ID card bearing her photo seized during a raid on a rebel safe house in November 1995.

``If you are going to speak of proof that is presented here that is going to be completely false,'' she said, it will ``be interpreted nationally and internationally by the public as real evidence.''

Prosecutors say her signature and fingerprint were on the card. Berenson's family maintains the document only had her photo and was planted by anti-terrorism police to frame her.

Her parents, Mark and Rhoda Berenson, sat in the front row. Rhoda Berenson clutched a cassette recorder to tape the proceedings for translation later.

``If she is behind those bars, already it makes her look guilty before we start,'' said their legal adviser, New York attorney Tom Nooter, who sat with the family. ``She's like a caged animal behind bars before they've even presented any evidence against her. That is shocking.''

Berenson's parents, both university professors, retired to campaign full-time for her release. They say a fair trial is impossible in a nation where their daughter is widely vilified and most Peruvians presume her guilt.

``I'm confident that if nothing else, the public will hear Lori tell the truth,'' her mother, Rhoda Berenson, told The Associated Press. ``Peruvians will have a chance to see that she doesn't have horns.''

After years of pressure from the United States, Peru's top military court overturned her previous conviction in August, paving the way for a new civilian trial on the lesser collaboration charge.

Prosecutors have pointed to Berenson's public pre-sentence declaration in January 1996 in which she angrily shouted support for Peru's poor and declared, ``There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA. It is a revolutionary movement.''

Berenson had a long history as a political activist in radical leftist causes before arriving in Peru in late 1994. She served as private secretary to El Salvador's top rebel commander during negotiations that achieved peace in 1992.

Berenson has denied she knew her housemates were members of the rebel group, known by its Spanish acronym, MRTA, or that they planned to try to take over Congress to exchange hostages for jailed rebels. Police say they foiled the takeover plot by arresting Berenson and 14 guerrillas.

Berenson's lawyer, Jose Luis Sandoval, has said his client was duped by the Tupac Amaru guerrillas. He said rebels scheduled to testify in the new trial have altered, recanted or disavowed alleged statements that had implicated Berenson in the first trial.

Oral testimony is expected to last at least 15 days. The three-judge court could take more than a month to reach its verdict by majority vote. Peru does not have a jury system. Under Peru's legal system the prosecution may appeal, meaning whatever the outcome, the case will likely be decided in Peru's Supreme Court.